“You should have stayed at the Peabody. It’s in the heart of downtown and much closer to Beale Street,” the cab driver told him, assuming his passenger was a tourist, as they pulled into the parking lot of the Harahan.
The Harahan was a hotel just south of downtown Memphis, positioned high on the bluffs of the Mississippi. He liked it because it was quiet and you could look out and see trees, instead of the concrete nightlife of the bustling city. It reminded him of stepping away from an immense party for a moment to get some fresh air and renew his senses. Right now, he needed that.
“You can’t see the river from the Peabody,” he said.
“It’s just a river,” the cab driver said.
He didn’t reply.
As the cab pulled away, he stood there for a moment in front of the Harahan, admiring its Parthenon-like qualities. Eight marble columns flanked the front of the ten-story building. A vast limestone portico led from the edge of the circle drive up to the entrance. It wrapped around the front of the building and spilled into a winding cobblestone path that led down the bluffs through the thick foliage of maples and elms which separated the hill from the bank of the river. Three massive gas-lit chandeliers hung behind the columns. Each was a serpent-like menagerie of blown glass and black iron. Through the revolving door, he thought he heard a piano playing.
Inside, a black and white mosaic tiled floor led to an Italian travertine marble fountain in the middle of the ballroom. The ballroom itself went up three stories, bordered by the railings of the second and third level hallways overhead where people liked to stand and look down on the crowd while sipping martinis. Looking up reminded him of the decadent lattice-work of Bourbon Street balconies.
A colossal floral spray of lilies, roses, and jonquils sat on top of the fountain with sprigs of greenery and shoots of curly willow extending up past the second story. Atop the shoulders of naked angels, lines of water dripped lazily out of the conch shaped bowl holding the grand bouquet, creating a thin clear veil that disappeared into the base of the fountain.
A sparkling chandelier draped in crystal jewels hung from a gilded ceiling, filling the room with soft yellow light. There was a cocktail bar at one end of the ballroom and the front desk at the other. He’d been here before but still felt out of place. It was like when you move away from home for the first time and go back months later to visit. Everything is just as you left it, but somehow oddly different.
A Steinway baby grand greeted him when he walked in. The keys moving up and down by themselves intrigued him. It was like a ghost, a phantom, sitting there filling the room with Joplin and Cohn. He paused next to it and looked for his reflection in the polished black lid. He saw nothing but a ghost there too.
After checking in, he rode the elevator up to the ninth floor. He flipped the credit card shaped room key over and over in the palm of his hand. He frowned at it, uninterested by how technology had advanced but had also ruined the ambiance of such a splendid hotel. He imagined a burnished brass skeleton key engraved with his room number on it, back when patrons were sincere about returning the key at the end of their stay. He didn’t blame the hotel for switching to plastic cards. He would have probably kept the key as an easy souvenir from the first time he’d stayed here. But not this time. There was no need for a memento to remind him about this stay.
But the first time he ever stayed here was when he met Bennington. He preferred to be called Ben for short. Ben was sitting alone at the lobby bar during happy hour. He was a tourist up from New Orleans. This was the farthest up river he’d ever been, and the farthest he’d ever go. He invited Ben back to his room to chat, and swiped Ben’s cocktail napkin as a souvenir. Up in his room, they didn’t do much talking. They spent the rest of their vacation together before Ben took a train back to New Orleans. He bought a ticket to go with him, and never came back until now.
He had a different room this time at the end of the hall. The lamps were turned on when he opened the door, like a loved one, Ben, waiting for him when he got home at the end of a hard day. He left lights on so his studio wasn’t so dark when he got in, but he lived alone now. The thought of someone waiting for him was at least mildly comforting.
He put his bag down gently on the crisp turned-down bed and slipped his shoes off. He threw his wallet and keys in the drawer of the nightstand, then picked up the remote and flipped on the television to break the silence. Opening the closet and dresser drawers like a cat burglar, he searched for remnants of anything left by whoever stayed in this room before him, but there were none.
Once, before he met Ben, he found a shirt hanging in the closet at a cheap truck stop motel off Highway 55. It was a starched plaid blue shirt with pearly snap buttons, the kind a rodeo cowboy would wear on a date. It filled the small space with the smell of cheap cologne, the kind that comes in a cobalt glass bottle with a sample of aftershave or talcum powder.
By accident, he left a jacket of his own in a New Orleans hotel once, where he stayed before moving in with Ben. He wanted to call and ask for it, but knew it would be a waste of time. A maid probably kept it and gave it to her son, or perhaps the next resident found it. He wondered what his own smell might have reminded them of.
The thick lush carpet felt good beneath his bare feet. He dug his toes in and pulled at the threads enjoying the way it tickled. He sat at the table in front of the window and perused the colorful flyers and menus that were neatly stacked there for his convenience. Pictures of laughing couples at dinner in dark restaurants, blues bands up on stage on Beale, and crowded dance floors under mirror balls and laser lights adorned the brochures. His mind clung to memories of the city that were just as alluring, but it all seemed so far out of reach right now.
Eyeing the firm empty bed, he unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall. He gently slid out of his pants as if showing off for a lover waiting for him there under the sheets. The jingle of a belt still in its loops and the shuffle of pants tossed over the back of the chair made him smile. But sadly, there was no one there to be intimate with. Not this time.
He turned on the water in the shower and watched the mirror fog up. The coppery bathroom was pristinely clean. A basket of posh soaps and lotions adorned the vanity. He unscrewed their caps and took a whiff of each. Winter raspberry. Jasmine. Eucalyptus. Spring Lilac. Butter cream Vanilla. A tray hanging across the bear claw tub held cakes of soap and a loofah. He unwrapped a bar of soap and stepped into the stand-up shower.
With both hands, he held the soap to his face and inhaled its aroma as the pressure of the hot water massaged his shoulders. The soap didn’t smell like Fresh Linen as the wrapper had indicated, but it appeased him. He lathered and rinsed, and then stood there with his eyes closed letting the steam comfort him till the water ran cold. He could almost feel Ben’s warm arms wrapped around him now.
He loved the enormous white fluffy towels that could wrap around his waist almost twice. Fresh from a shower, he laid on the bed once before to watch television, wrapped in his towel. He awoke in the middle of the night to turn off the TV, and unfurled the towel instead of climbing under the blanket. It covered him completely when he curled into the fetal position.
He unzipped his bag and removed a pair of black pinstriped slacks, a white sweater, socks, and fresh under garments. He finished drying off, and looked at his lean physique in the mirror on the wall before getting dressed. His pale freckled skin and visible ribs disgusted him, but Ben had always loved the way he looked. He needed a hair cut. After getting dressed, he unpacked his dopp bag on the vanity. His travel-size deodorant, toothpaste, and hair gel made the illustrious bathroom look cheap. He liked a wrinkled towel or spots of water on the floor from time to time. It made the place feel lived in.
Before leaving the room, he looked over at the window. He had not opened the velvet drapes to look outside. He knew the view well, looking down at the muddy river like you were standing out on a windy cliff. The M shaped bridge loomed in the distance connecting Tennessee with Arkansas. Lego-like skyscrapers sat far away protruding up over the trees. The full view of downtown, what he could see of it from here, had amazed him. It was like a child’s train set model he could reach out and pick up with his hands. Instead of going to the window now for a look, he wanted to see it one more time up close.
He waited in the lobby for another cab to arrive. A young off duty bellman sat at the bar flirting with a female bartender. The bellman was sitting in the same exact barstool where Ben had been sitting that first time he laid eyes on him. The bellman leaned in close and whispered lustful compliments to her. She blushed, letting her hair fall across her face as she dried a wineglass over and over. She liked him, but she was shy and unsure of his direct approach. Unbeknownst to them, he eavesdropped on their conversation while keeping his eyes on the door for his cab.
“Do you know how beautiful you are?”
“No,” she said with a playful giggle.
“You are so sexy right now.”
“You think so?”
“I know so, baby.”
“No need to thank me, darlin.’ Just being honest. What time do you get off?”
“In about an hour.”
Their volume trailed off and he couldn’t hear anymore. He wanted to tell her she could do better, but he didn’t want to let them know he’d been listening. His cab was here anyway. After work, they’d probably find a younger crowded place. The bellman would buy her too many drinks. She’d rub up against him on the dance floor and give him the wrong impression. They’d hump in the back seat of his car in the parking lot, or maybe go back to his place. He probably shared a Midtown apartment with some frat buddies where the trash can overflowed with beer cans and pizza boxes. Dead flies lay on the window sill, pubic hair on the rim of a dirty toilet, and scented votives spilled onto pickle jar lids.
The cab dropped him off at Madison and Main. He stood at the intersection waiting for a horse drawn buggy to pull out of the way so he could cross. An older man and woman cuddled in the back seat. He liked seeing the buggies and trolley cars. They were a small part of the city that made it distinctive although they catered mainly to tourists. He’d ridden the streetcar through the Garden District in New Orleans before, but never here. Most old Southern towns still had trolleys and carriages so they weren’t unique to Memphis, but he couldn’t imagine the city without them.
South Main was a strip of art galleries that had only taken up residence here in the past five years. Locals called that area Bohemian. He just thought it was eclectic, and paused to admire the bright paintings and pottery behind the display windows. Walking under the marquee of the Orpheum Theatre, he looked up to watch an LED light display announcing Cats opening in two weeks. Eerie yellow feline eyes with pupils that looked like dancing silhouettes filled the space, blinked, and then disappeared like the Cheshire cat.
He wasn’t going to walk down Beale, but he suddenly felt the need to be around other people. Maybe he’d run into someone he knew from long ago and they’d stop him to say hello. They’d invite him into B.B. King’s for a beer. They’d talk about themselves and their new job or their new lover, and only after ten or fifteen minutes of nonstop story telling would they ask how he was doing.
“I’m good,” is about all he’d have to say.
Then awkward silence would have to fill the space between them. He’d turn away and watch the band so the old friend didn’t have to say anything else. He knew they wouldn’t bring up old names. Talking about one’s past spoils the mood when blues is already filling the air.
But there was no one he knew tonight. He might as well have been an apparition, a zombie, walking down the middle of the street crowded with drunken revelers, bachelor parties, plastic beer mugs, and neon light. There was too much melody and intoxication in the air for anyone else to feel his pain. He didn’t belong here, and he knew that.
At the end of the street, he waited at Beale Street Landing to catch the trolley. Its art deco red retaining walls looked like an aging tractor abandoned in a field. He could hear the river water licking at the base, but there was no time to walk up the incline and look over. A yellow trolley car rumbled to a screeching halt. Its jointed double sliding door smacked open and he stepped aboard. He dropped two quarters and a dime into the meter box and took a seat. The driver didn’t look at him.
He had the car to himself except for a homeless-looking black lady in a faded cotton dress. She smiled a toothless cackle at him and nodded when he sat down. He liked the way the slatted backs of the seats moved back and forth to accommodate the trolley changing directions. He held the one in front of him for leverage as the car sped up again.
“End of the line,” the driver called out when they’d reached the end of Riverfront.
The silver Pyramid arena glistened to his left like an ancient Egyptian anomaly. He had not noticed the black lady got off at the last stop.
“When does the next trolley come by?” he asked the driver.
“Twenty minutes,” the unconcerned man said to the windshield, not turning around.
He stood up and approached the door. The driver reached out like a mechanical robot and pulled the lever with a jerk to open it.
“Good night,” the man said shutting the door and speeding away.
His feet had barely touched the pavement when he felt the wind of the trolley’s movement behind him. He walked up Auction Avenue which turned into a bridge crossing over to Mud Island. The lights positioned up the Pyramid shined like the color of a full white moon. He looked over each shoulder for any sign of cars but the streets were empty. He sat up on the concrete rail and heaved his legs up and over. As his feet dangled over the edge of the bridge, it felt like his shoes might slide off but he didn’t care.
This was a perfect spot for what he needed to do. The wind whipped at his shirt like someone trying to push him over. He looked down into the black water and saw nothing. Looking south into the distance, he could just make out the windows of the Harahan, like small rectangular stars down close. He liked the idea of someone there possibly looking back at him. Too bad he couldn’t do this now.
Only the chirp of crickets and frogs broke the silence until the roar of the next trolley could be heard. The closer it got, it sounded like a freight train breaking through the tranquil night. He stood there by the lamp post, its yellowed light spotted with the carcasses of dead bugs, and waited at the stop. He hoped it was a different streetcar than the one before.
“Evening,” the gray haired driver said with a smile.
He had the car all to himself this time. He took the seat right behind the driver.
“How are you tonight?” the driver asked.
“You live here?”
“Good time of the year to do that.”
He respected the man for not asking where he was from or how long he’d be here. Older and kinder southerners minded their own business. They didn’t ask too many questions.
“Where’s your stop?” the driver asked.
“The opposite end of Riverfront. I can get off sooner if you need me to.”
“We’ll go all the way,” the driver said with a nod.
There were just a few laggard bars at that end, the ones who had been downtown the longest. Vacant junk stores and a few quaint condos dotted the doorways in between. The boarded up windows of old feed stores and mercantile would eventually be rehabbed as a newer downtown grew in that direction. Law offices, coffee shops, and art studios would wipe off the dust, plant dogwoods along the sidewalk, and revitalize what was left of the past. He could grab another cab to go the half mile back up the bluff to the Harahan, or he could just walk.
Back at the hotel, the bellman and bartender had already changed shifts. The ballroom was oddly quiet except for a couple chatting at a table over a few empty bottles of beer. The piano was still. Its ivory teeth were concealed beneath the black shiny lid. He took the elevator up to his room, but didn’t notice he punched the button for the wrong floor until he was already at the roof. The Skyway was the name of the restaurant on the top floor.
When he stepped out of the elevator, he could look to his left and see inside the dining room. It had dark blue carpet and was wider than the ballroom. The lights were dimmed. He could just make out the white clothed tables like strange animals trying to hide in the dark. With a wall of picture windows along the far side, the dark blue surroundings disappeared into the night. To the right was a door where you could step outside. He felt like he was trespassing, but the door was unlocked. He stepped out to take a look.
It was a grand open space perfect for spring weddings or family reunions with bricked in flower beds all along the side rails. Closed market umbrellas were leaning against the outer wall. Some folded up tables and chairs were stacked neatly against the building as if a party was going to be set up for soon or might have just been taken down. There was an empty platform, probably used for a stage, on the side facing the river. He stepped up onto it.
From here, the river looked like a well-known face mixed in the crowd who you thought you recognized from a distance. You were unsure if you knew them or not, and would need a closer look. If you hesitate and turn away just for a second, and then decide to look back, they might be gone. He’d spent too much of his life turning away.
Back in his room, he undressed and turned off the lamps. He pulled back the sheets and climbed into bed. He lay there for a moment looking at the ceiling, his eyes slowly acclimating to the darkness as light from the hallway peeked in from under the door. He couldn’t sleep. It was getting late and the nightlife was growing jaded, but he wanted to look at the river some more. He leapt out of bed and went to the window. Pulling back the heavy drapes, the remote luminosity of the city became his nightlight. He stood there, and watched a barge drift lazily up river. When it was out of sight, he felt satisfied and went back to bed.
The buzzing of the alarm clock woke him before the sun was up. He’d left the curtains open. It was still dark outside. He didn’t remember what time it was when he had gotten back into bed. He put the same clothes back on from last night and slipped on his jacket in case it was cool out. He wanted to get down to the river before the sun rose, so he decided against another cab. He checked his suitcase for the small wooden cigar box he’d packed and slipped it into his coat pocket.
Outside, he walked at a brisk pace down the cobblestone path that led into the heavy undergrowth. A female jogger coming up the hill nodded at him and smiled. He briefly heard Elvis coming from her earphones as she passed by. When the thicket had cleared, he was down level with the river again. He continued along the path until it turned into a boring paved sidewalk. From there, he cut through the grass to reach the river walk. The tawny sun came alive and touched the sky as if someone had just lit a cinnamon candle.
The wide open ground in front of him was used in May each year for the barbecue festival. It lay quiet now, except for a gentle wind lapping at a piece of paper debris stuck between blades of the tall dead grass. The circus had packed up and left town. Large boulders and odd-shaped pieces of driftwood filled the edge between the Mississippi and Memphis. He looked for an opening so he could get closer to the water.
There was a patch of sand not far away. There, he slipped off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants for the river’s waves to touch him. Sometimes the skin needs to be touched. He could still look down and see his feet beneath the greenish water when he stopped and knelt down. It splashed the seat of his pants, but it didn’t matter now.
Through the fabric of his jacket, he felt for the cigar box. He could look down and see its rectangle outline. He pulled it from his pocket and opened it gently. He dipped his finger inside and sprinkled some of the contents across the surface of the water. The grainy contents blew away and connected with the river out in front of him.
Turning the box upside down, he emptied the sandy powder onto the water. The ashes filtered out in a small circle. He smiled at the swirling ringlets it created as if the remains were trying to stay together. A dollop in the water broke them apart and he watched it all float away.
“Goodbye, Ben,” he whispered.
He stepped back out of the Mississippi and looked down river. He didn’t want to turn away, not this time. But it didn’t matter.
It was done.
Somber yet, I don’t know, satisfying? Not the right word, I know. Maybe cathartic? He laid his lover to rest and although he may still grieve (can grieve for as long as he likes) it was a beautiful parting of ways.
“Sometimes the skin needs to be touched” — powerful and true.